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Slain D.C. teen remembered as funny, passionate about football

Ballou High School student Jaylyn Wheeler, 15, was fatally shot May 16 in Congress Heights.
Ballou High School student Jaylyn Wheeler, 15, was fatally shot May 16 in Congress Heights. (D.C. Public Schools)

Jaylyn Wheeler was passionate about football and wanted to take his mother out of Southeast Washington.

But the 15-year-old didn’t make it out of his freshman year at Ballou High School. He was shot to death Wednesday afternoon in Congress Heights.

“I want people to remember Jaylyn as a smiling, lovable kid,” said Rhania Reeves, who has been friends with his mother for decades.

“He was dedicated to life and to his mom,” Reeves said. “He wanted to get out of this place and be somebody.” Reeves said Jaylyn was especially close to his mother, who works as a nursing assistant.

“He was her rock,” Reeves said.

Jaylyn was shot shortly after 4 p.m. in an alley off Randle Place SE, a street that links two major thoroughfares — Alabama and Martin Luther King Jr. avenues. It happened in front of a charter school, though students there were not involved in the incident.

Reeves said Jaylyn was most likely walking from Ballou — where he had transferred just last week — to a bus stop on Alabama Avenue, about two miles from where he lived with his mother near Barry Farm. She said Jaylyn also has an older brother.

D.C. police said detectives are investigating whether the shooting may be linked to a fight Wednesday at Ballou or one that occurred earlier in the week involving Ballou students and students from a rival school. Police did not offer details on either incident.

As of Thursday afternoon, no arrests had been made. After the shooting, police said they were searching for youths wearing what appeared to be school uniforms — tan pants and white polo shirts.

Jaylyn was shot several times, including in the stomach, police said, and was rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 6:22 p.m. That was little more than half an hour before a community meeting to address crime began at a police station two miles away on Alabama Avenue.

There, a handful of residents met with the 7th District police commander, Regis Bryant, to discuss how to end a series of shootings this year that has pushed the District’s homicide total to 56, a 41 percent increase from the 39 at this time last year.

Jaylyn was the second teenager fatally shot in the District within a week and the sixth person slain this year between the ages of 14 and 17. His shooting happened in Ward 8, where 28 of the city’s slayings this year have occurred.

Paul Trantham, a community activist and an advisory neighborhood commissioner, visited the crime scene Wednesday and decried the mayor and police chief’s statements about crime going down across the District. Violent crime has fallen in all categories but homicide.

“Every time the mayor and police chief say crime is going down, we look down a street filled with police cars and police commanders and homicide detectives,” Trantham said. “We might as well let the National Guard in here and clean it up. . . . If this is the next four years, we’re in trouble. There are as many kids out here with guns as adults.”

D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) led what he called a “community safe passage walk” on Thursday after visiting with Ballou teachers and students. “We must protect our own communities,” he said in a statement.

Reeves, who runs a dance company in Southeast, said she has known Jaylyn since he was born. She recalled a time when he was just a boy and she took him and some of his friends to swim at a recreation center. As they walked back home, she turned to look at him, and Jaylyn seemed to have disappeared in the humid, misty evening air. She gave him the nickname “Ashy,” and it stuck.

Reeves said Jaylyn played football since he was little, joining recreational leagues and teams with the boys clubs. He loved ice cream, ice pops and barbecue chips, and he had just become an uncle after his older brother, 23, had a child.

He attended John Hayden Johnson Middle School, which on Thursday tweeted a picture of Jaylyn smiling before a camera. “Jaylyn was a funny, smart, and charismatic young man,” the tweet read.

Jaylyn then went to Choice Academy, a school for students who have been in trouble in the system. The classes are small and structured and include lessons to prepare “students for a successful reentry into their home schools.” He recently moved to Ballou, a traditional high school.

Reeves said she knew nothing about fights at Ballou but that Jaylyn told her of some problems adjusting to his new school. She said those concerns appeared to be nothing more than routine teenage complaints. “I asked him if he had a girlfriend, and he said, ‘Oh, I have lots of friends,’ ” Reeves said.

“My only concern was that he do well in school, no matter what school he went to,” Reeves said. “He wasn't into anything bad or tough. All he wanted to do was go to school, play football and eat snacks. You could not put something in front of him that he wouldn’t try to master it. He would go through any book until he found the answer just to make sure he didn’t fail.”

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